Kawasaki KX 125 - First Test & Review - Dirt Rider

Kawasaki's KX125 and KX250 have had a reputation for less than stellar performance in the past couple of model years. The bikes had no huge faults, but they didn't stand above the pack in any category: performance, ergonomics, suspension, perceived quality or even value. The public perception the bikes were off the mark ran so deep that even a string of championships from Ricky Carmichael, Nathan Ramsey and Mike Brown haven't erased it. There was no doubt the KXs could be made into serious weapons at the factory level, but the outlook wasn't so rosy in the average customer's garage.Kawasaki has the same creative power at hand as it did in 1997 and 1998 when the KX250 was winning shootouts everywhere. In the end, it all comes down to money. The brilliance of the available engineers and the practical knowledge of the testing departments and riders aren't worth much if the accounting department doesn't let the money flow.Corporate financial officers are stingy but not stupid, so getting the bucks would be easy if there was an absolute direct cause-and-effect relationship between money spent and number of new bikes sold. But today's motocross buyers are fickle when it comes to brand loyalty, and they don't buy a bike merely because it is "new." The accounting department will always say, "Show me the money," but dirt riders are responding with their own mantra: "Show me value for money!"Maybe we can't blame the money men for being reluctant. Recent history has proven that pouring mega man-hours and cubic dollars into a new design is no guarantee the buying public will show you love in the showroom. Witness the popularity plunge Honda took from 1996 to 1997 and Kawasaki mimicked in 1998 to 1999.

The truth is that the industry has seen more "new" models make radical plunges in the moto pecking order than cases where one year's lemon morphed into the next year's object of desire.But now the 2003 models are here, and the KX125 and KX250 are not only all new, but vastly improved. It wouldn't surprise us at all to see both bikes at the head of their respective classes. For sure we wouldn't stand in front of the door of your local Kawasaki dealer when he gets these bikes in. If the money-waving customers coming in don't run you over, the new owners wheeling bikes out will. These bikes are that good.

Kawasaki knows it had performance barriers to scale with the new bikes as well as a tide of current opinion to turn. No doubt public opinion was one of the reasons it chose the scenic Washougal National motocross track to introduce the new machines. There is no way it would have chosen a track with uphills like Washougal if it didn't have absolute faith in the power of the new engines. And if the looks and their moves were any hotter, the bikes would need G-strings to tuck bills in. The color of money was never more appropriate.KX125The '03 Kawasaki KX125 is a race-winner ready as delivered, and it's been a while since we felt that way about a KX125. Both the all-new engine and the slim new chassis are unbelievable changes from the 2002 model, or any of the past several years.

The first difference you feel is the chassis, since the improvement in feel is so vast that it makes a strong impression before you even start the engine. The bar position seems a little high at first, and the seat feels as if it might be a little low. Certainly you feel as if you are sitting "in" the bike rather than on top of it. The bodywork is all-new and, along with the frame, it looks clean and feels narrow and smooth. Nothing snags your gear or boots while you are getting the feel of the machine. Then you put your feet on the pegs. Where did that pipe come from? The body of the expansion chamber is wide, and it makes firm contact with the rider's right boot top.

Kawasaki's Mike Fisher made no apology, though, saying, "We can tuck the pipe in, but we'd lose power. We wanted the power, and when Bubba Stewart rode the bike he said we should choose the power." The soft and low seat didn't bring the same response, though. "We are asking that the production bikes come with firmer foam," Fisher claimed, "But it won't be any taller."Firing the engine brings another pleasant surprise. There is very little vibration, and the powerplant doesn't even sound like a typical Kawasaki. The new cylinder has an exhaust valve angled up like the YZ125; and the valve is lighter, more responsive to rpm changes and seals better, so the engine has a definite snap and crack to the note. The motor on the new KX125 is very powerful with plenty of boost to pull the Washougal hills with ease. The motor is a little weak right off idle (a place the '02 was actually pretty good), but once you get the revs into the midrange, hold on! It hits hard in the middle, and novice riders got a bit sideway in turns until they got a handle on the hit. The bike rips through the mid and continues all the way to the top, where it pulls the distance. The power is clean and crisp and very usable. We had an entire Team Green semi loaded with technicians, and even riders, who changed jetting or gearing or returned it to stock. The bike ran crisp and clean and didn't sputter for even a second. This engine should be very competitive and make the KX a high-stakes player in Dirt Rider's 2003 shootout.

The suspension on the new KX also gets two thumbs-up from the DR staff. If anything, we've felt the suspension action was a bigger hindrance to the stock 125 than the engine, but the '03 suspension is very balanced and plush. The fork takes the big hits with ease yet is plush enough to soak up the choppy braking bumps very well. The bike jumps very evenly, and that gives you a feeling of confidence almost immediately. Neither the suspension nor the chassis reacts to kickers on takeoffs, and no doubt that encourages the confidence the rider has in the air.

At the same time, the bike was very responsive to rider input in the air and in turns. The fork had to be one of Kawasaki's biggest improvements. Remember when KXs were renowned for fork action? Those days are back.The pipe did turn out to be a problem in tight turns for one ride. His Sidi boot has a lot of protection in the shin and calf area, and the hard plastic outer plate would hit the pipe and push his foot off the peg in the first few turns. Then you get used to it and it ceases to be an issue, but the paint on the pipe doesn't last 10 minutes.

Kawasaki probably doesn't want to hear its bike described this way, but the KX feels like a plush 2002 Honda CR125R with a Yamaha motor and a more yielding feel to the chassis. That is pretty high praise in our book. The ergonomics are right there in Honda-land as well, and that's a land right next to heaven.

On one hand the Kawasaki KX125 handled everything Washougal had to throw at it, and that is impressive. On the other hand, we had no other 125 to compare it to. A head-on comparison to the class powerhouses will have to wait, but we expect the KX will more than hold its own.

KX250Our first outing on the KX250 was an eye-opener. We were trying to scream the engine too much and got major arm-pump in 3.5 seconds. The thing is scary fast. With our arms shot we were forced to short-shift and attempted to pull a tall gear out of turns to ease the burden on our arms. Big difference. You almost ride the KX like an Open bike to make the most of the power. It doesn't seem to have the off-idle roll-on of the YZ250 but has usable bottom, a smooth and strong midrange and pretty good top. The engine revs through the meat of the power too quickly for optimum suspension performance if you scream it, but just forget that last downshift for the turns and the bike works!

If you are man enough to run and gun with this power, the trans and clutch will cooperate. This is the best-shifting KX250 ever by a wide margin. No missed shifts, and it never locked in gear under a load either. You want to shift, it shifts. Some of the K-TRIC/Keihin/Power Jet KX250 engines have been a little lean or tinny-feeling some place in the power, but not our test machine at Washougal. No jetting or gearing needed, just like the 125.

Even though the seat-to-peg relationship was a bit tight for our riders (all near or over six feet tall), the KX250 is slim and easy to move around on in a way the bike hasn't felt since before Kawasaki introduced the perimeter frame. It doesn't matter whether you are braking or accelerating.If it isn't obvious by now, the KX250 is sweet. It appears Kawasaki targeted the suspension toward lighter riders, and while fast or heavy pilots used a lot of the travel even while entering turns, the KX felt as if it may own the title of "Plushest in Class" after a long rough dry spell.Whether it can win our 250-class shootout remains to be seen, but if the other brands aren't worried now, they should be.* Lighter, more powerful engine cases, cylinder mounted 6.2mm lower and leaned farther forward (16.5 to 21 degrees) to straighten exhaust ports and improve flow
* Larger water passageways in both cases and at each side of cylinder for improved and more even cooling
* Lighter, more compact cover protects water pump
* Redesigned crankshaft with lightweight plastic web covers
* Lighter ignition rotor for improved throttle response
* Piston is tin-plated and has reshaped exhaust-side skirt designed to reduce flexing and increase durability
* Straighter top edge of exhaust port and reshaped combustion chamber
* Head gasket replaced with O-rings
* KIPS valve is lighter, alumite-coated and its shape copies the Yamaha-style guillotine-type
* Final gearing changed from 12/49 to 13/51
* Redesigned clutch uses lightweight die-cast hub, lighter inner hub, new one-piece thrust bearing (replaces ball bearing), actuating arm moved inside engine cover
* Mikuni TMX 38mm carburetor with arch-shaped slide replaces conventional flat-slide
* Reed valve body redesigned using different reed angle, modified reed stop; 3x2 carbon-fiber reeds replace 2x2 reed setup

What's Hot!
* Smooth and plush suspension is well balanced front to rear
* High-revving motor with hard-hitting midrange for great overall power
* Sleek bodywork and seat with more foam offer great rider movement and increased comfort
* Chassis is great combination of crisp steering and calm high-speed manners
* Smooth and light clutch action combined with effortless and reliable shifting
* Smooth and powerful brakes
* Comfortable bar bend
* Team Green comes through with a new look and a completely rebuilt and redesigned engine and chassis

What's Not!
* Chubby pipe interferes with boot in tight turns
* Short between seat and pegs for taller riders

What's New! KX125 AND KX250 Shared Changes
* Head stay moved from front of head to rear for reduced vibration and more compact design
* Chrome-composite-plated cylinder instead of electrofusion
* Revised linkage ratios provide better action and reduce ride height by 10mm for a lower center of gravity
* Shock high-speed compression damping gone
* Lighter, stronger swingarm hydroformed in tapered shape
* Fork offset increased from 22 to 25mm for sharper cornering
* New 48mm Kayaba fork with no bladders and bump rubbers replacing the oil-lock for bottoming
* Triple clamps have thinner walls, aluminum steering stem is 6mm longer and top triple-clamp pinch bolts thread from rear
* Front brake caliper uses dual 27mm pistons, operated by 11mm master cylinder piston
* Rear master cylinder now one-piece design, rear rotor is 0.5mm thinner, 20mm larger (240 by 4.0mm) and mounted with stepped hex-head bolts
* Compact new chassis has one-degree-steeper rake, 6mm-longer headpipe and larger perimeter tubes
* Single top bolt used to attach aluminum rear subframe for easy access to the rear shock
* Raised chassis ridges reduce paint wear on spars; frame color now silver
* All-new styling and smoother bodywork with reshaped radiator shrouds, thicker clear coating for the new graphics and a new seat shape
* Rear axle diameter increased from 20 to 25mm to match stronger swingarm and frame
* New rear hub
* New ratchet-type shift mechanism for positive shifting
* Black box mounted to chassis headpipe to aid airbox service and airflow
* Radiator capacity increased for improved cooling
* Smaller-diameter handlebar grips
* Handlebar (Jeff Emig bend) is slightly higher and pulled back to suit new chassis